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Class 6: Using History to Glorify and Defend the Past


The exhibition, "Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African-Americans in Civil War Medicine" is one example of a broader movement to recognize the role of African Americans in U.S. history and to exemplify their positive contributions in the face of overwhelming obstacles. One purpose of such history is to build pride and respect among African Americans and their fellow citizens. Yet some Civil War stories, such as the work that blacks performed in support of the Confederacy, do not fit neatly into such narratives, and may lend support to others that seek to glorify the South. This class explores the way that history is used to support contemporary arguments, and in particular how Civil War stories contribute to modern discussions of diversity and ethnic progress in modern America. It also interrogates the place of film in imagining and embedding historical truth.


Goldfield, David. Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002, 1-42, 298-319.

Helsley, Alexia. South Carolina's African American Confederate Pensioners 1923-1925. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1998, 5-25.

Nathan, Daniel. "Massachusetts 54th on Film: Teaching 'Glory.'" Organization of American Historians Magazine of History 16, no. 4 (2002): 38-42.

Video: Glory. Dir. Edward Zwick. Writ. Robert Gould Shaw, Lincoln Kristein, Peter Burchard, and Kevin Jarre. Perf. Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington. TriStar Pictures, 1989.
[Note: Assign for viewing outside of class and/or choose excerpts for classroom viewing that emphasize heroism of black troops.]

Discussion Questions:

  • Discuss the depiction of the 54th Massachusetts regiment in the movie Glory. Compare and contrast depictions of African Americans in other movies about the Civil War. (Gone with the Wind, Birth of a Nation, etc.)

  • Does the exhibition "Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine" promote pride in African American accomplishment? Is the story it tells important? Why does it matter? Who would you want to see the exhibition and why?

  • It is clear from books on the black soldiers in the Civil War that they were treated as "second class" soldiers. (See class 4 reading, Intensely Human by Humphreys.) Does it detract from the heroism of the men to simultaneously see them as victims of an army staffed by men, some of whom were nearly as racist as their southern counterparts?

  • How does the evidence that so many African Americans in South Carolina claimed pensions on the basis of their work for the Confederacy affect how you view their participation in the war, and the Confederacy itself? Were the black men and women who worked in the Confederate hospitals, for example, supporting the war effort?